St. Louis burning: America’s atomic legacy haunts city

by @RyanSchuessler1 April 29, 2015 5:00AM ET

County parks, homes, businesses remain open and untested after decades of exposure to potentially contaminated creek

Dawn Chapman, right and Karen Nickel hug after learning that workers who worked on the sites in the 1970s will speak to them about what happened at the sites.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America
Karen Nickel believes she developed Lupus from exposure to the toxic materials dumped in her community.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

This is part one of a three-part series examining the effects of radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project on St. Louis and its suburbs. Part two looks at residents' fears that a spate of infant deaths might be linked to toxic waste. Part three explores the potential implications of an underground landfill fire moving toward a toxic waste site.

HAZELWOOD, Mo. — Karen Nickel had never even heard of lupus before she was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease six years ago.

Today she says she takes as many as 18 pills a day — “and that’s just to make me feel OK.”

“Sometimes I can’t even get out of bed,” Nickel said. “Sometimes I can’t even let someone hug or touch me because it hurts so bad.”

Lupus causes a patient’s immune system to turn on its own body, attacking healthy joint and organ tissues. It is most common in middle-aged women such as Nickel, but has recently been linked to exposure to uranium.

That’s what Nickel thinks caused her lupus. She’s since found out that at least three other people from her childhood neighborhood also have the disease. They all grew up in a neighborhood bordered by a suburban St. Louis creek that was contaminated with nuclear weapons waste for decades before any cleanup operations started.

There may still be radioactive waste in the creek, which regularly floods parks, businesses, and neighborhoods — most of which have never been tested for radioactivity and remain open to the public with no notification of the potential risks.

Uranium ore used to make the atomic weapons used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was processed in downtown St. Louis, which hosted the country’s only uranium plant until 1951. In the decades following the end of WWII, hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste were haphazardly stored, shuffled around the region, illegally dumped, and sometimes left unaccounted for. As the metropolitan area expanded, suburban communities — such as the one Nickel’s parents moved their family to in 1973 — were built downwind or downstream from contaminated areas, government documents show.

After years of government reorganization, the contaminated sites in the St. Louis area have been targeted in cleanup campaigns led by various government agencies, and officials have long maintained there is no immediate threat to human health. But many in the community disagree with that claim, pointing to a trail of rare cancers, autoimmune diseases, birth defects and infertility that span generations and are known to be linked to prolonged exposure to radiation — and some government agencies are starting to take notice.

The way locals see it, St. Louis is burning — and nobody is paying attention.

Coldwater Creek

Coldwater Creek was and potentially still is contaminated with radioactive waste.
Ryan Schuessler

For North St. Louis County residents of Nickel’s generation, Coldwater Creek was just a normal neighborhood creek — many didn’t even know its name. It was just “the creek” that kids would play in on hot summer days or cross on the way to school. It was the creek that would flood when it rained too much, turning neighborhood parks into giant puddles, dripping into basements and covering family vegetable gardens.

What many did not know was that they were living downstream from a 22-acre field acquired in 1946 by the long-gone Atomic Energy Commission. Hundreds of thousands of tons of waste — much of it radioactive — were dumped there, including some 60 tons of uranium-laced sand from Nazi Germany’s nuclear program that was captured by the United States en route to Japan near the end of WWII.

Soil samples taken by the Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1990s show that soils contaminated with forms of uranium, thorium and radium were found as deep as 20 feet in some places. The creek is near the westernmost boundary of the site and then flows nearly 20 miles through St. Louis County municipalities such as Florissant, Hazelwood and Black Jack .

Radioactive materials were carried into Coldwater Creek when it rained, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. In the late 1990s, the Corps found radioactive waste approximately five miles downstream from the storage site during a bridge renovation project.

“I lived my life outside and now I feel like my childhood was a lie,” Nickel said. “All that time I spent outside, I was being poisoned.”

Nickel said her sister was once taken to the hospital where doctors discovered that her ovaries were covered in cysts. She was 11 years old at the time. The same thing happened to the girl next door — she was 9.

Nickel said she knows of at least 15 people from her childhood neighborhood alone that have died of cancer. She estimates that there were approximately 25 houses in the area back then, with about 75 people.

At age 33, former Florissant resident Jennifer Smith was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. In the 1950s, doctors observed unusually high levels of that same rare leukemia among the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Smith said she knows of at least four others from her old neighborhood who also have the disease.

“During the years I lived in Florissant as a teenager, the creek would flood into our backyard and covered our vegetable garden — the garden I ate out of all the time,” Smith said. “My teenage bedroom was downstairs. The creek would leak into my bedroom through the window, and it also had flooded our basement several times. I had [a lot of] exposure, physically, to the creek.”

 “I fully believe 100 percent in my heart that that’s where the leukemia came from,” she said.

Regarding contaminated sites in St. Louis, long-term, low-level exposure to radiation is what poses the greatest threat to human health, said St. Louis County Department of Health Director Faisal Khan. Khan, who is new to the position, has been vocal about this issue, becoming one of the few government officials at any level to call for residents’ concerns about radiation exposure to be addressed.

“The population that grew up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s — they were very hard hit, and anecdotally at least there seems to be an environmental health concern,” Khan said. “It has been an environmental health disaster that has unfolded over decades, and is only now coming to light with the extent of community concern and angst about what has been done.”

Jenell Wright grew up near Coldwater Creek.
Ryan Schuessler

Calling it the day she woke up to an “inner ring of horrific reality,” Jenell Wright, who grew up near Coldwater Creek, decided to make a list of everyone she knew from North St. Louis County who had developed cancer. There were 274 people on the list.

“People from my [childhood] baseball team, from my church, from my high school, from my grade school,” Wright recalled. In 2011, she felt like she was spending more and more time visiting people in the hospital. “Everybody is dying. And they’re all [in their 40s.]”

Within six houses of where she grew up, Wright said she knew of four people who had brain cancer — including the young boy who lived next door. During his treatment, Wright recalled, she would see him laying under blankets in the sun in his back yard, shaking, trying to get warm. “It was horrendous,” she said.

A Facebook group created as a place for former residents to report their illnesses now has more than 10,000 members, many of whom also report infertility, birth defects, and autoimmune disease such as lupus and multiple sclerosis.

From the group’s informal survey of more than 3,300 current and former residents of North St. Louis County, more than one-third reported cancer in themselves or a family member, including 43 cases of appendix cancer — a disease so rare that fewer than 1,000 people are diagnosed with it in the United States each year.

But proving that the cancers are a result of exposure to radioactive waste in Coldwater Creek is very difficult, and maybe even impossible, Khan said. According to the American Cancer Society, one in three people are expected to develop cancer in their lifetime.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has responded to community concern and studied cancer rates in areas of North St. Louis County. However, the methodology does not account for resident movement. Data used in the studies comes from the Missouri Cancer Registry. Diagnoses submitted to the database — which is required by law — are geographically organized by the ZIP code in which the patient lives in at the time of the diagnosis.

So if former residents like Smith move away before their diagnoses, they may not be included in the statistics. Smith had direct exposure to Coldwater Creek for years, but was diagnosed with leukemia when she lived in Las Vegas, so her cancer is not included in the data. Many residents of Smith’s generation moved away in recent years, part of a demographic shift in north St. Louis County.

However, in an unexpected turn, the Missouri Department of Health did indeed find higher rates of some cancers when in 2014 it revised a 2013 study that turned up no such patterns. When more ZIP codes were added, the data showed statistically higher rates of cancer, including colon, prostate, kidney, bladder, and female breast cancer, among others. Data also show higher rates of childhood brain cancer in children in some ZIP codes, as well as higher rates of leukemia. The state promptly requested help from the Center for Disease Control to conduct further studies in the area, and the state Department of Natural Resources sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of the cleanup, describing the situation as “urgent”.

The Army Corps of Engineers takes over

Karen Nickel believes growing up near Coldwater Creek caused her to develop lupus.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

Over the years, the radioactive waste was moved around the region, transported in the back of uncovered trucks, left in uncovered piles, and carried into Coldwater Creek by rain runoff, said Mike Petersen, Chief of Public Affairs for the Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District, which was charged with cleaning up some contaminated sites in St. Louis.

“It’s kind of alarming to see how many hundreds of people who lived in these neighborhoods had no idea what was going on in their backyards,” Petersen said. “We inherited a legacy of bad decisions, and whether it was through ignorance or negligence — it doesn’t matter. We are dealing with that legacy now.”

In 1997, the cleanup of dozens of contaminated sites nationwide was transferred from the Department of Energy to the Army Corps of Engineers. The sites were all part of the Former Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) that had been established in 1974. The Corps’ St. Louis District has been testing, excavating, and moving contaminated materials and soils out of the St. Louis-area sites for 17 years — including the site that contaminated Coldwater Creek.

The Corps has already moved more than a million cubic yards of material to modern storage facilities in western states.

Using a sort of “follow the radiation” method, Petersen said the Corps began testing samples from the Coldwater Creek’s 10-year floodplain earlier this year. If a sample comes back positive for radiation, additional samples are conducted in the adjacent area, and so on, following a “trail,” if there is one.

But residents like Wright and Nickel aren’t satisfied with that method, saying it won’t be enough given the nature of the area’s potential contamination. They fear that the “trails” that would lead the Corps to radioactive waste from the creek, left behind by floodwaters, could be broken and overlooked by the Corps.

Radioactive particles could have been left behind on any surface touched by the creek’s floodwaters, Wright worries, not deposited like a trail of breadcrumbs. Historical aerial images of the area also show that dirt exposed to Coldwater Creek’s floods has also been moved around during construction or utility projects, including the development of new subdivisions.

“I believe a lot of the information they have is inaccurate,” former Florissant resident Angela Helbling said of the historical information the Corps uses to locate sites for soil samples. Helbling — who developed a rare salivary gland tumor, and whose mother died at 39 of a brain tumor — has taken it upon herself to find and dig through scores of government documents, looking for any indication that contaminated soils may have been moved during utility maintenance or flood control projects. 

It’s the uncertainty that bothers Helbling and Wright most. Sites that routinely flood — including parks, residential areas, businesses, and a community vegetable garden, among others — remain open to the public and are regularly used. Many have never been tested for radioactive waste. There are no signs that warn residents who live there now about this risk.

“Utility and road crews frequently dig into these soils. Children play on and in them,” wrote the directors of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in a joint letter to the Pentagon regarding the funding of the FUSRAP program. “We believe that priority funding to allow rapid and complete remediation is needed to address this concern.”

“We are concerned that people are going to have the same fate as our communities because it has not [all] been cleaned yet,” Wright said. “We should not be having to tell people this. The government should.”